As wildfires fueled by warming climate grow in size, homeowners face greater risk

·7 min read

Teresa Burgess woke up in the middle of the night to her neighbor’s son shouting and pounding on the windows and doors of her home in Ventura, California. Through the windows she could see an eerie orange glow.

A raging inferno that became known as the Thomas Fire, one of California’s most devastating wildfires, threatened their community after racing 10 miles in just a few hours on Dec. 4, 2017.

“It was pretty frightening,” Burgess said. “We could see emergency vehicles. The winds were howling.”

After grabbing just a few things, she and her husband could feel the heat as they loaded their three dogs into vehicles and drove away from their home of 25 years. It would be one of more than 500 homes torched that night by flames and glowing embers the size of basketballs.

Fires like these have put California in the news countless times in recent years, but it’s one of many states where residents face a growing wildfire threat, and that risk is forecast to increase exponentially in the years ahead, concludes a new report released Monday by the First Street Foundation.

The report analyzes the results of a first-of-its-kind wildfire risk model, developed by the nonprofit foundation and its partners in a public-private collaboration. The model assesses each property’s risk based on a broad array of data and information, including property type, building materials, terrain and proximity to historic fires.

Property owners across the country can type in their address at Riskfactor.com or at Realtor.com and learn more about their risk, then scroll through and see how that threat changes over time and what they might consider doing to make their properties safer.

A firefighter works to extinguish flames burning a structure during a May 11 wildfire in Laguna Niguel, California. A new model and program by the First Street Foundation concludes wildfire risk will rise in the years ahead and allows property owners to look up their fire risk.
A firefighter works to extinguish flames burning a structure during a May 11 wildfire in Laguna Niguel, California. A new model and program by the First Street Foundation concludes wildfire risk will rise in the years ahead and allows property owners to look up their fire risk.

About 80 million homes and other structures across the country are threatened by wildfire risk, said Matthew Eby, the foundation’s founder and executive director. Of those, more than 10% face a risk considered major, severe or extreme, with anywhere from a 6% to 26% chance of a wildfire over a 30-year period.

Matthew Eby, founder and executive officer of the First Street Foundation
Matthew Eby, founder and executive officer of the First Street Foundation

The First Street Foundation, based in New York, has modeled flood risk from rising sea levels and extreme rainfall, launching a tool for homeowners in 2020 on Realtor.com called Flood Factor. The results of its latest work, Fire Factor, launched Monday.

Millions of people each year make decisions on the biggest investment of their lives – buying a home – without the right information at their fingertips, Eby said. He hopes to change that.

Although the annual number of wildfires has decreased slightly in the U.S. over the past 30 years, the number of acres burned each year is increasing, more than double what it was in the 1990s, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Fires burned 7.1 million acres in 2021 and 10.12 million acres in 2020, just below a record high set in 2015, based on statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.

The fires burn in conflagrations that give people little time to prepare or react. Rising temperatures and lengthy droughts make conditions worse and put more people are in harm’s way. More than 3,500 homes burned last year.

Not only is the wildfire risk expected to increase over the next 30 years, but many properties with moderate levels of risk now will move into higher levels, the report said.

“Fire is driven by heat, and heat is the No. 1 thing we see changing in climate models,” Eby told USA TODAY.

Over the next 30 years, the states with the biggest increase in the number of properties that meet the foundation’s threshold for risk are Colorado, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Montana. Also in the top 10 with the biggest increases are Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, Kansas and South Carolina.

Seeing those Southeastern states in the list was the biggest surprise after hundreds of millions of model runs, said Ed Kearns, the foundation’s chief data officer.

Ed Kearns is chief data officer for the First Street Foundation.
Ed Kearns is chief data officer for the First Street Foundation.

In Appalachia and along the East Coast, it's going to get drier and more combustible, said Kearns, a former chief data officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It kind of reaffirmed a fear that I had, but it's even more widespread than I thought."

But states in the Northeast have a low fire risk, the study found.

Among the list of counties with the most properties at risk are three in California – Riverside, Los Angeles and San Bernardino – along with Maricopa County, Arizona, and Polk County, Florida.

The counties with the largest percentage of properties at risk are Los Alamos, Harding and Colfax in New Mexico and Mason and Gillespie in Texas. In each of those counties, more than 97.9% of the structures in the county are at risk, according to the foundation’s modeling.

Fire Factor includes a graphic on the possible height of flames that could reach a home, how likely a home might be to combust, and the most recent wildfire larger than 100 acres within 20 miles. Eby said people will be able to use the tool to understand their risk at a property level and also how that risk is going to evolve over the next 30 years.

Most encouraging to Kearns are model results that show efforts to reduce fuels and use fire breaks do make a difference. “It’s a really good sign there are some big steps we can take on a large scale to protect communities," he said.

Jim Karels, fire director for the National Association of State Foresters and retired director of the Florida Forest Service, isn’t aware of any other nationwide program that allows property owners to examine their risk.

“The more tools the better,” Karels said. For him, the big question is how to persuade people to take action once they learn about their risk and to get them past the point of thinking a wildfire won’t happen to them.

In states like California, where people see recent or regular damage to neighbors' homes, people take wildfires more seriously, he said. To his dismay, the same doesn’t appear to be true in Florida.

“Convincing homeowners to take steps to reduce their threats is probably the biggest hurdle we’ve got,” he said. He was Florida’s assistant chief for fire control during the “summer of fire” in 1998, when 500,000 acres and 150 structures burned.

At the time, it seemed those were lessons Floridians would never forget. But since then, Karels said, “with a whole bunch of people moving in every day from places where they don’t have fires, it’s hard to convince them there’s a threat until it happens.”

Securing a home against wildfire threats is probably the most affordable and do-it-yourself kind of disaster prevention, said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, or FLASH. “It’s pretty achievable.”

Property owners can put wire mesh over soffit and vents and other openings to prevent flying embers from invading, she said. They can also add spark arresters in chimneys and fireproof decks, and they can create three zones of defensible space around their homes.

Wildfire prep: Wildfires near you? Follow these safety tips for homeowners

The safe homes alliance, a Florida-based nonprofit, educates homeowners about disasters and how to be resilient, especially when it comes to local building codes.

“We have to give them the tools to do it, and they need information,” she said. "This type of custom risk information is excellent because it helps motivate people to take meaningful action that will save lives and homes in the future."

For Burgess, the flames left heartache in their wake. The couple learned their home burned about 24 hours later when their son, across the country, saw TV video of their house on fire.

Even though they had good insurance, the fire left gaping wounds in their lives. After the fire, they sat down with an adjuster and went through room by room everything they lost and put a value on it. It took several visits.

“We already had bleeding wounds. They’d started to scab over and it was like getting the scab ripped off every time,” she said. “We couldn’t take it. We would just break down remembering everything we lost.”

Life goes on, Burgess said, but she still regrets leaving behind the 50 photo albums of their travels around the world. She and her husband divorced and never rebuilt their home. She sold the still-vacant lot this year.

“It was an incredibly emotional, tumultuous time,” she said. “Based on my experience, I would say pretty much everybody is at risk."

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at dpulver@gannett.com or at @dinahvp on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: First Street Foundation: New tool assesses a property's wildfire risk

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting